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Moscow Times, February 16, 2004

Rybkin Affair Is No Laughing Matter

By Matt Bivens

Back in 1994, Grigory Yavlinsky's older son, Mikhail, was a piano player in his early 20s. Unknown assailants mangled Mikhail's hands. They also stuffed a note in his pocket warning his father to get out of politics.

Soon after, parents and teachers were pleading with the Yabloko leader to withdraw his younger son, Alexei, from school: They feared getting caught up as collateral damage in an anti-Yavlinsky car bomb, or worse.

The Yavlinskys appealed to the government. But by 1995, an inconclusive police investigation was closed, and the Boris Yeltsin Kremlin had shrugged off pleas for federal protection.

"[Yavlinsky] was told to hire his own bodyguards, or to otherwise look to his family's safety. So he hid his children," said Yevgenia Dillendorf, a Yabloko press secretary.

Mikhail, 32, and Alexei, 23, today live in England. Dillendorf says the British government -- unlike the Russian -- has formally agreed to guarantee their safety.

Mikhail still writes and plays music. "But he can't play professionally now," Dillendorf said. Of his mangled hands, Dillendorf said, "luckily, they were able to sew his fingers back on."

In 1994, Yabloko's voice was raised loudly in democratic opposition to Yeltsin's rule -- and especially to his terrible decision to invade and carpet-bomb Chechnya. So Mikhail Yavlinsky's assailants could have been Kremlin-directed, or could simply have been freelancing nationalists.

If nationalists, they were sophisticated enough to target his son -- and the fingers. Which begs the question of why the Yeltsin government refused to protect the Yavlinskys.

Years ago, someone brought me an obscure Harvard University newsletter, with a terse account of a Yavlinsky speech. The newsletter noted that afterward, in private remarks (no doubt not meant for the college paper), Yavlinsky recounted an attack on his son. The newsletter version had the webbing between Mikhail's fingers being cut.

For about half an hour I thought this an important story. I called Yabloko spokesman Vladimir Braginsky, who testily confirmed it all -- but he argued strenuously against publishing. It was even then a six-year-old story, and the Yavlinskys had fought hard to keep it quiet; I could be putting their family in danger.

I'm not much for parachuting into people's private lives. I wavered, and then it started to slip slowly through the cracks. I can't remember how, but somehow it got added to the mental pile of things I maybe, possibly, should have seen through to completion.

When Ivan Rybkin disappeared, I joked that he was just out on one of those epic benders celebrated in the Soviet film "Ironiya Sudby," or "The Irony of Fate."

As I was chuckling at my wit, Yavlinsky was quoted sternly warning that jokes were inappropriate: A candidate for president had gone missing. Rybkin resurfaced, with his hair-raisingly erratic explanations, and I couldn't help agreeing with Yavlinsky -- and remembering he spoke from harsh experience.

This weekend I called Yabloko spokeswoman Dillendorf and told her I was doing the story. Most of all, I wanted to know why Yavlinsky never talks about it.

"Well, he and his wife so decided," she said. "They felt that they needed to protect their kids and so they didn't need a lot of noise. And also, Grigory Alekseyevich [Yavlinsky] did not want to demand pity and tears.

"Grigory Alekseyevich still doesn't like to talk about it. It's still a sore spot, even today -- because it tore apart their family. They live without their children. It was a horrible event, it's still painful, and it's not forgotten."

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.


Moscow Times, February 16, 2004

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